He was known to those few in Carmichael who remembered his father and grandfather as Swede the Third, a name he didn’t care for as it enflamed his most painful memory.
He had not started out as a bartender; but one might be excused for thinking so considering the number of years – thirty in 1986 – that he had worked at Jerry’s Tavern. His daughter, Audrey, was two when he started. When a new owner took over from Jerry O’Malley in 1967, Swede was already a civic institution.
Swede’s grandfather arrived in Carmichael late in the Nineteenth Century and worked as a farm hand until he died at the supper table after a long, hot day’s haying in 1928. An immense, broad-shouldered man with powerful limbs and chopped up hands, he worked like an ox and consumed heaped plates of meat and potatoes smothered in gravy. Everyone assumed he would live forever, but he died just shy of sixty-five.
By that time, Swede the Second had fulfilled his father’s dream of owning a farm, something he accomplished with bank credit in the Twenties. He had returned from the war in France minus two fingers of his left hand, hard of hearing in his right ear and with an eternal disinterest in Fourth of July fireworks. Despite an uncertain pricing environment, he increased the herd of Holsteins and Jerseys, planted an apple orchard and added two new rooms onto the modest farm house. Going ever deeper into debt, he tore down the dilapidated barn and built a spanking new one. He lost the farm in the early years of the Depression as milk prices sank well below his production costs. He left town leaving his family to their own devices.
Swede missed his father terribly. One minute he was there, tossing a ball with him or telling jokes at the dinner table; and the next, he was gone, leaving a void that confused and frightened the seven-year-old. For years, a giant of a man with a vague face appeared in his dreams, hoisted the little boy to his shoulders and galloped around the farm yard like a horse.
The family scraped by. Swede’s mother got permission to move into a cottage on a neighboring farm. She was charged no rent and got paid in kind for milking, shoveling manure, weeding the vegetable garden and haying – Stafford Thorstein having let go his hired hand and having no sons but rather a sickly wife and a married daughter who lived in the Midwest. Swede walked the mile and a half to school with his two older sisters and, before heading home, earned a few nickels doing chores at Fogarty’s Grocery while his sisters washed laundry for still reasonably well-off families like the Beckmans who owned the Ford dealership.
In later years, Swede had difficulty remembering a time when he hadn’t worked at least a part of each day except Sunday.
The family’s situation improved in the Forties. Stafford Thorstein began paying cash to Swede’s mother who, he had long realized, worked as hard as any man. Swede worked part-time for Stafford as well as another farmer, who offered him a full-time job when he graduated from Carmichael High in 1945.
“You work like your grandfather,” the farmer told him. “You get along with everyone including them Negro apple pickers who come up in the fall; my wife thinks the world of you; and you seem to have a good head on your shoulders.”
Meaning, Swede knew, that he wasn’t the kind to cut and run like his father. Swede thanked the man but turned him down and took a job as a truck driver. He liked the idea of being on the road and thought maybe he would run into his father someday. He grew a beard in imitation of the picture his mother kept on her dresser.
It wasn’t clear to Swede how he became such a good listener and likewise a sparse talker – at least when it came to talking about himself. Perhaps it was listening to the radio on the long stretches of highway or sitting at truck stop counters while the man next to him beefed about the wife or the kids or the mortgage. However it happened, by the time he started bartending in 1956, he had a knack for lending an ear. He gave up truck driving not because he didn’t like it but because he missed his family. He had married Dottie Gorman in 1952 when she was twenty-two and he was twenty-five. She was his first girl friend and the only person with whom he had ever talked about his father’s disappearance.
After high school, Dottie studied for a year at a beautician school downstate, returning to Carmichael to take a job at Nell’s House of Beauty. She surprised herself by falling for Swede at a New Year’s dance a couple of years later. Of course, she had known who he was. They had only been three years apart in high school, but she hadn’t paid much attention to him. He looked awkward and a little lost standing off to one side at the dance so she went up to him. They talked a lot, danced a little, had a glass of champagne at midnight and sang Auld Lang Syne. He walked her home to her parents’ house. As she shook his huge hand, she knew she would marry him – just not when. She stopped working at Nell’s House of Beauty when Audrey was born.
Little Audrey seemed to grow by leaps and bounds in the days Swede was on the road; and in spite of the squeals of excitement that greeted him when he walked through the door, he dreaded the look of accusation he read into her eyes when he walked back out. When Dottie told him she was pregnant for the second time, he gave notice the next day. Swede had five months’ experience as a bartender when Jack entered the world at just under eight pounds.
“He didn’t get that weight from me,” Dottie said with a weak smile, propped up against the hospital pillows and holding Jack to her breast.
They didn’t have what one would call a social life. Swede worked on the evenings when most couples went out, and Dottie – a delicate woman whose pack and a half a day of Pall Malls didn’t add to her stamina – had her hands full with the kids and the house. Swede could have taken his dinner at the Tavern; but he preferred to duck home to eat a hurried meal with the family. On Sundays, when the Tavern was closed, he and Dottie spent the afternoon romping with Audrey and Jack. As the kids got older and spent more time out with their friends, the two adults played endless games of checkers and backgammon. Or on cold days, they would build a fire and sit on the sofa - her fragile hand encased in his ham-fisted one - sipping bourbon, talking quietly and half listening to Frank Sinatra on the Magnavox record player Swede had bought Dottie for her thirtieth birthday.
They owned a small house at the foot of the thickly wooded hills that hemmed in the town on the south. Houses on steeply-tilted lots with panoramic views were scattered through the hills. Further south rose craggy Mt. Wheeler, originally Moose Peak but re-named shortly after the Civil War for the family of timber barons who were still a powerful presence in town. Starting at Route 43, the Mt. Wheeler road cut through a gap in the hills and wound upwards past the Carmichael Game Preserve. The odd farm along the narrow road supported only modest herds and small orchards.
The houses in their neighborhood were mostly ranch-style and set close together. Encroaching on the hills, they had tiny fenced-in yards. The ear of all and sundry in the Tavern, Swede had scant interest in leaning on a backyard fence to hear his neighbors’ views and no interest whatsoever in telling them his.
When Jack entered sixth grade, Dottie went back to work at Nell’s in order to put something aside for what she and Swede eagerly expected would be the kids’ college tuitions.
It was April 1986, and spring seemed to be in no hurry. The fields were pockmarked with patches of crusty snow; and the cows turned their backs to the biting wind. Ellis Fogarty slipped on the ice carrying Louise Zimmerman’s groceries to her car and broke his wrist. His son, Brian, insisted that his father either retire or stop helping even the most elderly of customers with their bags.
“We don’t have a parking lot like that infernal One Stop Supermarket out on 43,” retorted Ellis. “How are we going to keep our older customers if we don’t carry their bags?”
“We have a couple of carts. They can take one,” said Brian.
“Fine service that is,” snapped Ellis. “You think Louise Zimmerman, at her age, is going to push a cart along the sidewalk?”
“I guess not, but let me do the carrying.”
“And if you’re busy?”
“I’ll un-busy myself.”
The town chafed under the lingering hand of winter. The exhilarating first snowfalls were a faded memory. The felt-lined boots found under the Christmas tree were now well-used. The snow along the roadsides was caked with grit, and mornings of crystalline sunshine had given way to afternoons of dull skies.
“Winter, get thee behind me,” muttered Irma Mulcahy, Louise Zimmerman’s daughter, as she entered Jerry’s Tavern one Thursday in the middle of the afternoon. The bar was, as she expected, empty. Seated on a stool behind the bar, Swede was staring straight ahead. An open paperback lay face down on the bar. He looked at Irma with surprise but said nothing as she walked towards him, slowly running a hand along the backs of the bar stools as if checking for dust. She glanced up at the painting behind the bar of the reclining nude woman, noting the ample rear end and the inviting smile turned towards the viewer. Irma chuckled.
“What’s funny?” Swede asked in a low, flat voice.
“Just wondering how your customers would react if that were a painting of a man.”
“That would depend on who the man was. Now if it were Floyd...”
“Nah,” Irma grinned. “The football hero’s bod ain’t what it used to be.”
Swede smiled faintly. Irma picked up the book, a cheap detective novel.
“I thought you’d be reading a better class of literature,” she said.
“I thought you’d be frequenting a better class of establishment.”
“Got me there,” she said with a small laugh.
“What are you doing in here at this time of day? We don’t see much of you and Floyd even when the place is hopping.”
“I came for a Johnny Walker on the rocks.”
“The hell you did,” said Swede.
“It’s not for me”
Swede looked around..
“Is it a goblin you’ve brought with you then, Mrs. Mulcahy?”
“Not today,” Irma replied.
He stood up and, leaning his broad shoulders over the bar, checked the space around her.
“If so,” he said, “it’s an invisible one.”
“Not a leprechaun either and you’re forgetting that I’m only married to the Irish.”
“In that case, who pray tell is the Scotch for?”
He sat back down.
“Are you trying to get me fired?”
Irma hoisted her thickening frame onto a bar stool. Her reddish brown hair had started to gray, but she refused to color it the way her best friend, Virginia Wheeler, did. She leaned forward, keeping her eyes on his.
“Furthest thing from my mind.” She gathered her thoughts. “I just felt the Johnny Walker would be something of an ice breaker.”
“Is there ice that needs breaking?”
“Maybe yes, maybe no”
“You’re being awfully mysterious. If there’s something you need to talk about...”
“It’s not me, Swede.” She smiled at him in what she hoped was a gracious and not condescending fashion. “You are everybody’s ear – the town psychiatrist. Not to mention that most folks probably prefer you to young Father Di Lorenzo or Reverend Cairns.”
“Ah the Methodists. I’m a lapsed Lutheran myself.”
“No doubt,” said Irma. She looked down and then back up at him. “I simply thought that right now you might need someone to talk to.”
He was as much a giant as his father and grandfather; but now, however, he seemed to shrink. He rubbed the sty in his left eye.
“Audrey and Jack were here for a week.”
“That was three weeks ago; and anyway, I meant someone closer to your own age.” She patted the back of her head, a habit she had spent a lifetime trying to break. “One’s kids can only do so much.”
She paused. Swede said nothing.
“I hear Audrey is living in Chicago.”
“Works for Sears, Roebuck.”
“Los Angeles – trying to break into the movies.”
“He always was a stunner. How’s he doing?”
“Had a few bit parts. Nothing you would care to see.”
“Both far from home,” Irma mused as Swede fell silent again.
"Dottie was fifty-six, wasn’t she?”
Swede got off his stool. He took a bottle of Johnny Walker Red Label from the mirrored shelf and set it on the bar. He put ice in two glasses and filled each with Scotch. He handed one to Irma and sat back down.
“After all this time, I don’t suppose I’ll get fired for one drink.”
They clinked glasses and drank. He set his glass on the bar and ran a hand over his thick, but well-trimmed beard.
“Yes,” he said, “she was fifty-six. You have a good memory.”
“She was a year ahead of me.” Irma patted the back of her head. “She graduated but I...” Irma smiled at the memory. “...got pregnant.” Irma briefly touched Swede’s huge hand with its delicate blond hairs. “She was too young for this to happen.”
“By half,” said Swede looking into his glass.
“She was a sweet person.”
Swede looked up.
“She hated losing her hair, “ he said. “The chemo will do that. She said she looked like her grandmother at ninety. She got so weak she could barely get out of bed. She padded around the house like a ghost. Like she already wasn’t there.”
Swede rapped his knuckles sharply on the bar.
“But she still wouldn’t give up the smokes. She asked for one the day before she died. I had to hold it to her lips.”
“Are you very angry at her?”
A hurt expression came into his eyes.
“You have every right to be angry. I would be. Floyd still smokes much as I carp at him.”
“Gave it up years ago.”
Irma got up.
“Excuse me, but I need the Ladies’ room.’
When she came back, she saw that her half-empty glass had been re-filled.
“Apart from angry, how are you feeling?”
“Maybe you should take over as psychiatrist.”
“Am I sounding too ,,, like a TV character?”
“No,” he said, “but it’s not easy for me to talk.”
“I’m not surprised,” she said, “seeing as you’re mostly on the receiving end.”
“I feel very old.” He started to take a drink but put the glass down. “We were married for thirty-four years. She was my first girlfriend.” He moved the glass around on the bar. “The house is so empty.”
“It will probably seem that way for a while.” Irma shifted her weight. “Look, I’m here to listen, and I doubt my advice would be worth much anyway; but maybe a couple of suggestions,,,” She gave him an inquiring look as if seeking permission to continue.
“Don’t let being alone become routine. See your friends. Go spend time with Audrey and Jack.”
“They’ll be thrilled.”
“I didn’t say move in with either of them.”
“They’ll be glad to hear it.”
He got off his stool and shook his right leg. He massaged his thigh.
“Gets cramped if I sit too long.”
“Walking would be good for it.”
“I must walk a couple of miles every day just going back and forth along the bar.”
They finished their drinks. He removed the bottle and glasses and took out a cloth from underneath the bar. With studied deliberation, he wiped the surface. “I know hardly anyone except the folks who come in here.” He continued along the already-shining wood polishing in broad circles. “I wouldn’t call them friends. Dottie was my friend. She understood me.” He looked back at Irma.
“Do you have a dog?” she asked.
“They make terrific companions.”
“Who would do the talking – the dog?”
“No, you,” Irma said with a small laugh. “Can’t be any worse than talking to yourself – maybe better.”
“We ... I don’t have the yard for a dog. I’d hate to see it cooped up all hours of the day and night.”
“Just a thought”
Irma got off her stool. She put her hands in the small of her back and stretched.
“I see what you mean,” she said, “about sitting too long on one of those things. I rarely sit much. I thought it would be easier when Earle got married and the last of the kids was gone, but Floyd manages to fill up the vacuum. He wants to remodel so we can take in a boarder. Buying up in the hills set us back a pretty penny although I could look at the view forever. Floyd is hoping for a Knicks fan.”
She gave his hand a squeeze.
“You’ll be okay,” she said.
“Got to go. Floyd will be home before long and wondering where supper is.”
She thought for an instant as if trying to focus on something.
“Maybe you’d like to come over for supper sometime.”
She buttoned her coat and turned up the collar.
“If spring doesn’t get here soon,” she said, “we’re moving to Florida.”
She started for the door.
“You know,” he said.
She turned back.
“Both our fathers skipped town.”
“Even after ... what ... a quarter century, I still think he’ll come back someday,” she said.
“I thought that for a long time.”
“You were so young...”
“Get that dog. To hell with the yard. Take him out in the woods.”
“Your father was here the afternoon before he left. I tried to talk to him. He wouldn’t talk.”
“After being an accounting manager, I guess stocking shelves at Fogarty’s was just too humiliating.”
“Damn Majestic Machine Tools,” she said sharply. “Wonder how they did in North Carolina.”
“Is it true he left a note saying: ‘Gone South? Good Riddance’?”
“Yes,” said Irma. “Just like the one that got nailed up at the plant.”
He saw Irma’s expression go blank.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have brought it up. I’ve always wondered.”
“That’s all right.”
“It was thoughtful of you to come – to have bothered.”
“It wasn’t a bother.” She smoothed back her hair. “Think about supper. We’d love to see you.”
As she reached for the handle, the door opened; and Bernie Huggins, a retired state trooper, pushed into the room. He gave Irma a surprised look.
“Taken to drinking in the afternoons, Irma?” he asked. “Floyd’ll raise the dickens.”
“Not really,” she said. “Have you?”
“What else can an old ... man do for fun in these parts?”
“See you,” she said.
“Watch the sidewalks. It’s raining ice out there.”
A year later, on a March day of high winds, sparkling sunshine and a night sky full of crisp stars, Swede walked home from the tavern and shot himself in his living room. He was just weeks from his sixtieth birthday. For a very long time, Irma hated herself for not having followed up on the supper invitation. Swede left a note, asking that Irma take care of his German shepherd.